Restaurateur Danny Meyer gets a lot of credit for spearheading the retail renaissance around Union Square Park.
Opening his perennially popular Union Square Cafe in 1985 helped set off a seismic shift in real estate surrounding the notoriously nicknamed “Needle Park.” The area once overrun with junkies is now infested with foodies, who can easily score a quick fix at any one of the many top-rated eateries, including six operated by Mr. Meyer, within a five-minute walk of the park.
Imagine what commercial magic the Midwestern-raised hospitality guru might conjure up inside the park.
As co-chair of the neighborhood economic development corporation, the Union Square Partnership, Mr. Meyer, 49, is currently involved in the planned reconstruction of the ancient 3.6-acre square’s north end.
A collaborative effort with the Parks Department, the ambitious public-private project involves, among other things, renovating the park’s old run-down pavilion, built in 1930, and installing new plumbing, electrical, and heating and cooling systems, with the stated intention of converting it into a windowless restaurant space.
Construction is expected to begin this winter.
Yet, contrary to the critical acclaim typically associated with Mr. Meyer—the reigning king of Zagat Guide superlatives—the whole restaurant-in-the-pavilion idea has been getting some pretty bad reviews.
Ever since Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe first uttered the ‘R’ word back in October 2004, in fact, neighborhood activists and local politicians have railed against the proposed restaurant as a blatant example of the continuing commercialization of the public park system.
“In neighborhoods like Union Square which are starved for green space but already overwhelmed by dining choices, it is terrible public policy to continue to transform municipal parkland into a commercial engine,” opined State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick in her most recent December 2007 newsletter.
Mr. Benepe has argued that the eatery is “crucial” to the park’s continued vibrancy. “Why wouldn’t you want to bring hundreds of people into the park during the off hours to make it safe and vibrant?” he asked.
Adding a dash of mystery to the simmering brouhaha is the anonymous $5 million donation that’s partially bankrolling the reported $19.6 million reconstruction effort.
Skeptics have long suspected that the source of the secret funding might be someone bent on nabbing the forthcoming licensing contract to run the revamped pavilion eatery.
Could that mystery money man be Danny Meyer?
“That’s the speculation, of course,” a critic of the proposed restaurant told The Observer—speculation that Parks Commissioner Benepe adamantly denied: “It is not Danny Meyer, nor is it any other board member or anybody who has any business interest in the proceedings. It is strictly a charitable gift.”
Mr. Meyer, though, is not barred from bidding on the contract. Mr. Benepe confirmed that “from the city’s perspective,” there is no conflict of interest, despite his position with the private-sector group that’s partially funding the reconstruction. “This is a city project,” Mr. Benepe said. “The city has the final say on all aspects on the final design and operation.”
The usually hospitable Mr. Meyer himself declined to be interviewed for this article.
But who better, really, to shepherd Union Square Park into a thriving dining destination than the guy who transformed nearby Madison Square Park into one big line for brisket-infused burgers?
Indeed, Mr. Meyer’s Shake Shack might be the best example of the anti-commercialization activists’ worst fears.
Just last week, construction crews were digging up a section of Madison Square Park in order to install a new outdoor heating system so that Mr. Meyer’s ravenous disciples might bask in the glorified fast-food stand’s alfresco splendor no matter what the weather. Even without the heaters, some customers still turned out for a brisk lunch last Thursday on the coldest day so far this season, braving bitter windchill in the single digits for some warm cheese fries and hot chocolate.
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